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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Interview: Anthony Neil Smith

Nestled in a farm town just this side of Minneapolis, Anthony Neil Smith uses the frigid world of his adopted home state, Minnesota, with snow rake at hand and Herman Dog at his side, to write crime. Neil, he’s a middle-name-kind-of-guy, sounds like a superhero and to many he is as the nefarious Doc Noir: as creator, purveyor and publisher of noir and transgressive crime fiction.

His story, “Herman Dog Digs” stands as Shotgun Honey’s more unique shorts, casting Herman as dog-of-action sniffing out the sordid truth of the world. Smith’s shorts have been published in numerous journals and zines, and his novels published in print and as e-books, from the Billy Lafitte novels, YELLOW MEDICINE and HOGDOGGIN’, to original titles, CHOKE ON YOUR LIES and ALL THE YOUNG WARRIORS, the latter published this last week by e-publisher Blasted Heath.

How’d you get the gun? Or rather what drew you to crime fiction?


And I wanted to find out what happened to the Hardy Boys, who were trapped on that plane heading towards the sea! After that, I had to read them all. And then my folks got me a handheld quiz game for Christmas which had a “detective and mystery” cartridge, and I played it until I nearly had them all memorized, which moved me into adult crime fiction pretty quickly.

After my dad was killed in a car wreck when I was ten, the whole business of funerals and death stayed with me. I don’t know, it just seemed to fit. While I later drifted on to sci-fi, comic books, rock guitar, and even a stint of Christian rock guy (no more. Nope), I always circled back around to crime fiction.

From what I know of you, you are a displaced boy from the Bayou living in the Minnesota tundra. Can you disprove that and has that factoid crept its way into your work?

I’m a whatsit who and when now?

Okay, okay, yeah. I was born and raised down South, lived there until I graduated with my Ph.D., then got a job in Michigan for a few years. After that, Minnesota. And since then, I’ve fallen in love with the cold.

But read YELLOW MEDICINE and you’ll see my original response. It’s an angry book. Lafitte, the Southern exile cop, is pissed to be stuck in Minnesota. He hates the people and the cold. He hates himself.

It took falling in love with a Minnesotan woman to make me fall in love with Minnesota, and now I can’t imagine leaving the North. I like the cold. So you start to see the exiles in my work fade away. You begin to see Lafitte in HOGDOGGIN’ want a place to belong. And in the newest novel, ALL THE YOUNG WARRIORS, we have characters heavily invested in Minnesota, especially the large Somali population in the Twin Cities. They’ve really settled and made themselves a big part of the Metro.

So the displacement has evaporated.

Since you’re a converted Minnesotan, that must mean you own a roof rake. Would it make a good weapon… and what is a roof rake?

It would not make a good weapon unless you are, like, twenty feet tall.

A roof rake is exactly that: a rake for your roof…to remove the several feet of snow that piles up on top.

So I guess we won’t be seeing roof rakes used in future novels then, at least not in a traumatic way. What if… never mind.

You’re giving me ideas.

Can you tell us more about Billie Lafitte?

Billy is a bad cop from Mississippi who gets fired for doing bad things during Katrina, and gets a second chance in southwest Minnesota–prairie country on the border of South Dakota. And, man, he starts right up on being worse than he was down South. I had a lot of fun trying to write in his voice, this horrible person I wanted the reader to root for…and feel queasy about it.

In HOGDOGGIN’, I expanded the scope. He doesn’t get to tell you his story. Instead, he’s just one of several voices, but he’s the center of everything. And we find out he’s a lot more complicated than you’d expect.

I’m working on a third one in which I wanted his thought to be shielded from the reader. All the other characters see him, deal with him, but we never get inside Lafitte’s head.

For a while, Billy was, kind of, me–at least the bitter part of him–except that he had the power to do something about his misery. But he changed during the course of YELLOW MEDICINE. He makes choices I wouldn’t make. But he also loses a lot more than I’ve ever lost, too.

I look forward to seeing how the 3rd book works out, I have both YELLOW MEDICINE (signed even and you own me a beer) and HOGDOGGIN’. I know there’s been a few books since, but tell us about writing before Billie?

I wanted to work in comics when I was in junior high. I think I had a good idea for a series, but I never got past one “first issue” a friend and I put together.

Anyway, I thought I had a winner with an idea called THE UNDERTAKER AND THE THIEF. I even had a handwritten crappy draft. But it never worked. I gave up, got rid of it. then there was this detective I wrote about, a cajun named Mason Jane. I’d been writing abotu him since I was a kid. The older I got, the younger he got, and we sort of met in the middle in grad school and I wrote a short novel called DEBRIS, sent it to an agent, even had Scott Phillips read it.

But after finally hitting grad school, getting serious, and publishing quite a few stories in crime mags and lit mags, I had a few stories linked with the same characters, so I decided to give another novel a go. That one turned in PSYCHOSOMATIC, and it finally found a home at PointBlank Press after a long, depressing “close but no cigar” submission process.

Then I wrote THE DRUMMER, which was the beginning of my “guy runs away and starts his life over again” obsession, kind of my take on the conspiracy thriller, but with a lot of hair metal nostalgia in it. My agent at the time told me it would “poison” my career, so we parted ways and….well, eventually I found myself in the sway of Allan Guthrie.

I won’t even tell you about the “porno P.I.” novel that I never sold. Written between THE DRUMMER and YELLOW MEDICINE. I still like that book a lot. Wish we had been able to place it.

In the last year, you’ve embraced e-publishing, releasing both PSYCHOSOMATIC and THE DRUMMER in digital formats, so what are the odds we might see that “porno P.I.” story yet?

I’ve actually got my entire backlist up as ebooks now, plus the one original CHOKE ON YOUR LIES, and Blasted Heath is releasing ALL THE YOUNG WARRIORS in November.

I wasn’t sure about ebooks at first. I like paper. I like paperbacks. But I don’t like the prices, which seem to keep climbing. And I also didn’t like that my old books were just kind of floundering without a digital outlet. So I got back the rights to PSYCHOSOMATIC, then happily discovered a had digital rights to my other three, too. I means, it’s not really self-publishing if they’ve already been published by others, right? So I started with PSY, got a new cover from “Poker Ben” Springer, and put it up to see what would happen.

Just knowing it was alive again made me rethink things, especially after Allan told me how many novellas he was selling on Amazon each month. It was a crazy number. So I asked him if I should give it a shot with CHOKE ON YOUR LIES. He agreed, and I’m really excited by the result. Since January, I’ve sold over 3000 ebooks. CHOKE is especially an exciting one to watch as we’re now over the 800 sales mark. Yeah, I priced them all at 99 cents, but it was about finding new readers for the long haul more than it was about making money. I would like to make enough to justify writing a book a year, but that number is not quite as high as I once thought it was.

Epublishing has given us a ton of great new voices in a very short period of time. Writers are connecting with readers, using Twitter and Facebook to create fanbases, and generally having a great time.

Will the Porno P.I. novel ever show up? I don’t know. I’m starting to like the “cult” value of just letting people sneak looks at it every now and then.

One of the more unique stories here at Shotgun Honey is your “Herman Dog Digs.” We know you like to talk about Herman, so tell us about the stories inspiration?

Herman is the bestest puppy ever. He’s nearly two now.

My wife does this thing where she “talks” in the voice of our pets–two cats and Herman–and so Herman has this very distinctive voice in our minds. So I just had this image of me getting killed by robbers, and Herman being all torn up about it. So I wrote it in Herman’s voice. It also plays on the fact that in spite of the great love we have for our pets, if we were to die, they’d eat us.

It is a dog-eat-dog world, and in the end we’re all just kibble. “Herman Dog Digs” is just one of many shorts on the web and in print, we can even buy the “early crap” as an e-book, but as short fiction goes, you’re not just a writer. Tell those in the void about Plots with Guns.

Cool. Not going to go for the long version this time, but in ’99 a couple of friends and I were talking about the lack of good noir markets in literary mags. We knew some smaller ones, and the web mags were in their infancy, but we wanted a mag that was much more raw. So I had some free web space that came with my email account. Since it was there, unused, I thought we could turn it into a webzine. And PLOTS WITH GUNS was born. It took a few issues to really get the groove, but after that it was loads of fun. We made a lot of friends–new writers, big shot novelists, our heroes. Once the friends got busy with other things, I kept PWG going for a while. That first run was about four and a half years. We decided to shut the doors with an anthology by Dennis McMillan, and then, that was that.

Until these new kids popped up with MURDALAND and THUGLIT. I was so jazzed by those that I “came out of retirement” and brought PWG back. I love it being out there. And we found a whole ‘nother group of emerging writers, and found even more big shots willing to be nice to us. But as things go, I once again found it tough to keep alive with my own writing and day job (creative writing professor). This time, I wasn’t willing to let go. So I brought on a new editorial staff and art director to do the day-to-day stuff and take it into the future while I paid for the site and made sure these guys were going in the same general direction I would like. Sean O’Kane (ed), Erik Lundy (art), and Gonzalo Baeza (asst ed) have done a incredible job, too. They ramped up the look, the layout, and the fiction. I’m bowled over by the new Fall ’11 issue. Very proud.

Here’s the deal: write a great noir or transgressive story with a gun in it, send it to O’Kane and the boys, and only the very best gets in. If accepted payment will be a drink from any one of us next time we see you.

It seems you’ve been riding on the cusp of new trends and changes in marketplace, having run a top notch short story crime-zine and re-released your back list as e-books, did you ever consider jumping on the wave of new crime e-publishers?

You mean establish my own e-publishing house? Oh, no, no, no. No. No no no.

In the back of my mind, for a long time, I’ve had the daydream of having my own indie press, sure. Mostly, it’s been about doing cool paperbacks, though. I like the trade pbs with French flaps and rough-edged paper. But I don’t want to run a real business, really. Way too much to deal with–legal, taxes, paperwork, etc. and even though e-publishing might be cheaper to handle cost-wise, the workload to do it right would take a lot more time in the day than I have.

That’s why I’m glad to be an author on a great e-publisher like Blasted Heath, run by two guys who do have the time to make it right. They’re stretched to the limit, thinking up all sorts of new ideas and picking up amazing books. They’re working hard on promotion, too. So I live vicariously through Allan and Kyle, really.

If I ever win a giant lottery (talking millions here), then I would absolutely start my own press. But no other way, really.

It’s a crazy thought, but seems like a natural progression. Your readers are happy though to have publishers like Blasted Heath so they can have more compelling stories like ALL THE YOUNG WARRIORS. Sell our readers on your latest book.

I should let other do this, because it sounds more real. For instance, if you check the reviews on Amazon, you’ll find some crazy raves, four and five stars. Some folks (including Spinetingler editor Brian Lindenmuth) are saying it’s quite possibly the Book of the Year. I’m humbled and pleased by the kind words.

I got really interested in this story about young Somali men from the Twin Cities, where there is a very large Somali population, disappearing from their homes only to reappear in Mogadishu fighting for a terrorist army. So it got me to thinking about who recruited them, why they went, and what it would be like for someone who didn’t fit in. Also, out here in our small farm town, we see many Somalis who have branched out from Minneapolis and now live and work here. So what if one of them went missing? What would the effect be? So, while those questions ended up being modified a bit, they were the seeds. And I wanted it to be a gritty piece of pulp while also invoking both Minnesota and Somalia as well as I could. I did not visit Somalia, unfortunately. But I really dove into the research and tried to give it as good a shot as I could.

With the good reviews and the great support from your publisher, Blasted Heath, hopefully ALL THE YOUNG WARRIORS continues to be well received. Hate to let you go, but before you do, do you have any parting words or pearls of wisdom for our readers?

Don’t wear shorts out in the snow. I’m not concerned about your health. I just think it looks fucking stupid.